The Detroit Tigers are wrapping up the last days of the 2023 season, once again destined for a losing record. Once again the team will miss the playoffs. While it hasn’t been a season to remember, the team is assembling a few players of note.
Still, the Tigers may be years away from contending for a title. But it didn’t have to be that way. A little less than a decade ago, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch made a terrible gaffe, one fueled by hubris, that sunk the team, and set it on a path of mediocrity.
Max Scherzer was the bookend ace in the Tigers rotation in 2014. He won 18 games that season, the most in the American League. He also struck out 252 batters and displayed his patented aggressive, high-octane manner on the mound. With teammate Justin Verlander, Scherzer gave the team the best 1-2 pitching punch in Major League Baseball.
But when Scherzer made his final start for Detroit in the AL Division Series in 2014 against the Orioles, he knew his days as a member of the Tigers. That’s because he and the Detroit front office had not been talking for months.
Scherzer was set to be a free agent after the 2014 season. The Cy Young Award winner in 2013, Max was one of the most valuable properties in the game. That’s why the team opened negotiations with Scherzer in spring training, in an earnest effort to secure the pitcher for many years. But, the negotiations were brief.
Team president Dave Dombrowski desperately wanted to re-sign Scherzer, but the pursestrings were not his department. Team owner Mike Ilitch made an offer, for more than $120 million over five years. But, Scherzer and his agent balked, demanding at least $190 million and a longer contract. Ilitch was furious. Unused to being refused, Ilitch had a tantrum, and refused to meet with Scherzer’s agent to talk about a contract. He told Dombrowski to let Scherzer walk.
The following January, after Scherzer won those 18 games in his last season as a Tiger, the Washington Nationals gave Max a seven-year, $210 million contract. The Tigers could have had the right-hander for $20 million less earlier, but the inflexible Old Man Ilitch had squandered his opportunity to keep one of baseball’s best hurlers.
Scherzer went on to win two Cy Young Awards and pitch two no-hitters after leaving Detroit. He has now won 123 games post-Tigers, including 13 this year before an arm injury.
In 2016, the Tigers missed out on the playoffs by two wins. In the subsequent seasons, the team embarked on a rebuild, traded Verlander, J.D. Martinez and other lynchpins of the franchise. The club fell far out of contention.
With Scherzer, perhaps for seven years from 2015 to 2021, who knows how many times the Tigers would have been in the playoffs. A few times, most likely. Maybe they could have won the elusive World Series title that has not been in their possession since 1984.
Mike Ilitch died in 2017. His baseball team has passed to his son, Christopher, a more fiscally-conscious man who seems more interested in building restaurants and downtown attractions than fielding a good baseball team.
Chris Ilitch doesn’t really care about pumping money into his baseball team. He and his family have enough resources to contend every year, to be a Steinbrenner-like ownership group. But, the Scherzer Failure still haunts this team. It marked the beginning of the end of a dynastic period that saw the Tigers contend for several years and capture two pennants.
Since Mad Max left Detroit, the Tigers have been chumps. Chris Ilitch can fix that, if he wants to.
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